St. Petersburg is on the verge of hiring its first police chief in more than a dozen years. The four finalists will be introduced to residents this evening, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is expected to select one of them within the next few weeks. This will be the mayor's most important hiring decision, because the police chief has a high public profile and will guide a department set in its ways, resistant to change and often divided along race and generational lines. It takes a special leader to bring modern law enforcement techniques to a big city with small-town sensibilities about policing and skepticism about outsiders.
Kriseman is eager for a fresh approach, and three of the four finalists for chief are from outside Florida: Jerry Geier, the police chief in Goodyear, Ariz.; Terry Pierce, a police captain in Montgomery County, Md.; and Thaddeus Reddish, an assistant chief in New Haven, Conn. The fourth finalist is St. Petersburg Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan, whose supporters are waging a curious social media campaign on her behalf. But this is not a popularity contest, and the decision will be made by the mayor rather than by a public vote.
Among the areas that the finalists should be prepared to address as they meet individually with Kriseman and visit with the public from 5 to 7 tonight at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N:
1. What is your commitment to St. Petersburg as your new home rather than as a career stepping stone?
Geier has been the police chief in two smaller Arizona cities over the last five years but has extensive experience in Central Florida and makes clear he would make a long-term commitment to St. Petersburg. Pierce has worked in a larger department in Maryland for 24 years but has not been a chief. Reddish has spent 22 years in New Haven and has been assistant chief for two years. Bevan has been with the St. Petersburg police for 26 years and an assistant chief for two years, and she has a long history of community involvement.
Former St. Petersburg Chief Chuck Harmon led the department for a dozen years before retiring at the end of last year. While he was the longest-serving chief in recent memory, the city does not need a new chief who plans to stay only until the next hot job comes along.
2. What is your approach to community policing and ensuring residents are familiar with the officers in their neighborhoods?
Community policing is a popular slogan and was embraced by Kriseman during last year's campaign. But the concept means different things to different people, and it has fallen out of favor among some law enforcement experts who view it as ineffective. St. Petersburg drifted away from the original community policing model under Harmon, and the crime rate declined as the department shifted its focus according to changing crime patterns. Yet this is a city of neighborhoods, where many residents expect to recognize familiar faces in uniform who are not just driving by.
3. What is your experience in bridging internal divides within the police department?
The St. Petersburg Police Department continues to be divided into various camps, often along racial lines. But some of the recurring complaints about promotions and other issues also appear to be generational, with younger officers seeing less favoritism or unfairness than older ones who can recite who was passed over for which promotion. Bevan faces a particular challenge, since she has both supporters and critics within the department.
Get this hire right, and Kriseman will have a valuable partner in continuing to establish a more progressive, inclusive atmosphere in the city. Get it wrong, and St. Petersburg could be fighting old battles over unequal or unfair policing that would set it back years.